Tag Archives: Belief

Current attitudes to environmental action

Despite widespread concerns about environmental problems, and very considerable efforts to identify and implement solutions, the overall response to environmental threats still falls far short of what is necessary.

The rate and scale of environmental deterioration and climate change demand urgent and effective responses, but so far the responses have in general been neither rapid nor effective enough.

This is in spite of the fact that a great deal of pertinent information has been amassed by governments and institutions and many organisations have arisen to press for action.

How is this disjunction between knowledge and intention on the one hand, and action and effect on the other, best explained?

There are some well-known factors at work, in particular the role of vested interests (such as the coal and oil industries) in obstructing action, and conflicting views about how urgent and manageable the environmental and climate change problems are.

I would argue that a significant factor in slowing progress is the extent to which individuals hold contradictory beliefs about the relationship between life and the natural environment.

This is very apparent in the case of beliefs associated with biblical and Christian tradition, which encourage commitment to the view that there is an afterlife in a transcendent realm where the imperfections of the present world are eliminated.

Views of this kind are widespread in Christian and other belief systems. Examination of the biblical evidence shows that Christian beliefs in this regard are not justified, and that it is unrealistic to think that there is a way of escape into another realm from current difficulties.

Although the basis for other-worldly beliefs is weak, the hope of escape is strong, and many people would be reluctant to rule out such a hope when their circumstances are otherwise very discouraging.

There are clearly implications here for attitudes to the natural environment. A person may look on environmental action as ethically valuable, and yet have a lukewarm approach to the need for such action on the grounds that in the end there will be ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ which will solve all our difficulties as long as we are faithful, God-fearing believers.

Ironically, while this attitude is fostered by a desire for the best life possible, it works against the interests of the only life we and other species will ever know – life on this planet, where we are dependent on the continuance of the environmental conditions necessary for sustaining life.

In this light, I argue that it is a matter of priority that we evaluate current belief systems that are muting our response to environmental issues, and that we work towards a soundly based, effective world-view and philosophy of life.

Secularism and survival

When the Roman poet Horace wrote the Carmen Saeculare (‘Secular Hymn’), in support of Rome and the Augustan régime, he incorporated invocation of traditional deities. The occasion was the Secular Games of 17 bc, a public relations exercise using a tradition of periodic games to celebrate the peace and prosperity brought in by Augustus.

In the ancient Roman context, a saeculum denoted a long span of time, conceived of roughly like the English generation, century, period or age, and the people and events of a given time – the lives and experiences that characterised a period and distinguished it from its predecessors. Hence celebrations of a saeculum were like those of a modern centenary, recognising the passage of time, recalling events of long ago, and celebrating changes and achievements since then.

Over time and under the influence of Christianity, the present age came to be contrasted with the age to come, and the temporal world with eternity. Eventually the ‘secular’ games of Roman tradition were no longer held. Life, power and society had come to be understood within new frames of reference. The contrast between the secular and Christian notions of the sacred, ecclesiastical or religious became a distinguishing feature of a new age, and one that has continued to the present time.

Secularity and secularism are complex notions in a modern pluralist democracy. If democratic institutions are to be secular so as to allow for a diversity of religions, how are they to interact with religious traditions that are components of society? Integrated in the culture of a nation and part of a national heritage, religious traditions become interwoven with other strands of tradition that form the national experience. Hence in Australia one finds the Lord’s Prayer read in Parliament, an interest in religious issues prominent on government-funded ABC Radio, and government funding for church-run schools and welfare bodies.

Where is the line to be drawn between secular and sacred? In times of national emergency, for example in time of war, old religious traditions may emerge in the public sphere with greater force – as they did at the time of Augustus’ secular games, when respect for the old gods was re-invigorated. A nation’s leaders will want to be on-side with heaven – they will want peace with the gods – when survival and well-being are at stake and one can only expect a successful outcome if the powers of heaven and earth are in unison.

This indicates that having a tradition of piety is not enough. One needs to know whether piety is directed towards objects real or imagined. Tradition alone cannot be relied on to serve as a guide. The present age of ecological ruin compellingly challenges us to re-assess our understanding of this age and the age that might come hereafter, and to subject all tradition to scrutiny in the interests of the survival and well-being of planetary life. For this process of review to be effective, we need soundly based methods of critical analysis. We cannot expect to survive and flourish otherwise.